May 10th, 2016

As an R&D director at a pharmaceutical company, Rick met regularly with each of his team members to discuss the progress of their projects. As he listened to Priya’s description of her work, the first part felt solid and well supported. But the second part didn’t quite feel right. It seemed like it was missing something. So he asked a couple of questions to dig deeper into her thinking. As she answered his questions, they both realized that she had skipped an important step. Rick didn’t even need to say anything. Priya recognized her oversight and talked about what she would do to correct it. Both Rick and Priya left the meeting feeling glad, even relieved that they had talked.

No leader wants to be a micromanager. Similarly, no one wants to have costly mistakes occur on their watch. How can skillful leaders strike a balance between empowering employees, and becoming aware of problems soon enough to prevent or repair them?

After coaching some leaders on this skill and interviewing several others, I’ve come to recognize that skilled leaders can balance between these extremes by using two different, but complimentary approaches. Both involve gathering and interpreting information to determine whether a staff member’s proposals are workable or not. One approach uses logic and subject matter knowledge. The other involves reading people and using intuition. The best leaders use both.

This assessment process begins with a high level scan of both the content and the staff member’s delivery. The leader can listen, ask a few questions and observe the staff member carefully. If the scan indicates both that the content makes sense and the body language appears congruent, they can conclude things are moving along well, and can delegate full authority to their staff member.

Assessing content requires that the leader knows the key aspects of their business and uses this to recognize when an approach has gaps or flaws. In reviewing a project, they can listen for what seems to be going well, and what could be going wrong.  They can also study any data that the staff member provides to look for positive patterns, as well as for irregularities that could signify problems. They might also need to extrapolate from data or read between the lines to make this determination.

On the interpersonal side they need to discriminate between genuine confidence and defensive bluster.  In some fields it is common for staff members to have more technical knowledge than their leader. This creates a temptation to try to overwhelm the leader with technical talk. A leader will need to see through tech talk, or ask questions in order understand it well enough to pick out the critical elements of the staff member’s work. If the leader is managing a function that they know less about, they’ll need to rely more on reading the staff member and listening carefully to their train of thought.

If the either the content or interpersonal scan doesn’t smell right, for one reason or another, the leader will need to dive down and ask more questions. If they sense a gap they can offer varying degrees of assistance to the staff member to help them think differently and get the project back on track.

So far this blog has focused on weaknesses more than strengths. Let’s bring it back to a more positive and supportive focus. The goal is to have a conversation that is more like a collaboration than a witch hunt. While the leader needs to listen for gaps, they also want to recognize the strengths. If the staff member reveals both strengths and gaps, the leader can recognize the positive parts, and dig deeper into the perceived weakness.  The leader can do this by asking questions and being curious about the staff member’s plans, results or thought processes. They can show interest by asking questions like, “Can you tell me more about …”. acting as thought partner or editor, while still communicating that the staff member owns the project. To reinforce ownership they can use empowering words like,  “your project”. To facilitate the staff member’s decision making they can ask questions like, “What do you think we should do about…?” Choice of words is important here both to bring out their thought process and to reinforce ownership. Skilled leaders can conduct conversations that combine corrective check-ins with empowerment.

The benefits of empowering conversations are tremendous. The organization enjoys faster decision-making because they are being made by the people closest to the issue. In situations relating to customers, they are able to create more satisfying customer experiences. They also enhance motivation and engagement.  And most importantly, by making and learning from their own decisions employees develop the wisdom and confidence.

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